1. Midseason, I was starting to have some doubts about Succession (HBO), which seemed stuck in a psychologically realistic but dramatically inert bit of repetition compulsion, with all the Roys stuck in a bleep-happy, yacht-full No Exit in which hell was just being part of their family. But one viewer’s stuck was the writers’ “We’re heading somewhere!” and the finale pulled together a bunch of invisible strings to deliver some honest-to-goodness plot developments. Can’t wait for Season 4.
2. Jean Smart stars in Hacks (HBO) as a hugely successful and, well, hacky big-time comedian who takes on a millennial assistant (Hannah Einbinder) who wants to millennialize her boss’s shtick. Insults are their stock in trade, their day-to-day, their compulsion, their love language, and yet—they make great company. Smart is especially fantastic, but so was the episode in which Einbinder has a seemingly swoony romantic encounter that ends, well, just watch it!
3. One thing the TV audience doesn’t have yet is a functional relationship with the painful show. Moviegoers have one with the analogous category of film—so much so, in fact, that when the painful movie contains historical atrocities, it often wins Oscars. There’s an understanding that cinema can be emotionally harrowing and worth watching, en masse, an understanding that the decisive question doesn’t always have to be “Is this gonna be fun?”
In saying all of this as a preamble to discussing Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad (Prime Video), based on Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name, I may be further damning it to go criminally underwatched. We TV watchers really like our fun! But all I can say is this gorgeous, rigorous, moving series about slavery is not, primarily, fun, but you might want to watch it anyway.
4. The documentary series Philly D.A. (PBS/Topic) is sort of like if Aaron Sorkin and The Wire had a nonfiction baby. It follows the progressive defense attorney Larry Krasner just as he was elected, in 2017, to lead Philadelphia’s prosecutors’ office as an activist district attorney, out to end mass incarceration. When I say it’s like Sorkin, I mean that Krasner is an extremely principled protagonist with vision and values who goes into meetings and says stuff like “I know I should have met with you all individually, but that kind of bullshit politics takes time, and I’m out here trying to end cash bail today.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) Imagine what Sorkin could do with that! But Philly D.A. is also like The Wire because it’s not about some idealized political system in which the good guy always finds a way: Even the most ambitious leaders have to deal with bureaucracy and, in Krasner’s case, reactionaries, and Philly D.A. captures the smashup of Krasner’s unstoppable force with the immovable object of our criminal justice system.
5. City of Ghosts (Netflix), an animated show in which kids interview ghosts around the Los Angeles area, is for your children, but also for you. It starts mellow and twee and you’ll be all “Is this going to work, for them or me?” Then, staying mellow and a little twee, it does. Your kids will be transfixed and so will you, even as a small part of your brain chews over how this lovely thing could coexist in the same entertainment universe as the frenetic Cocomelon.
6. Mike White’s The White Lotus (HBO) achieved “everyone is talking about it” status and, you know what, I enjoyed it too.
7. I’m only halfway through Station Eleven (HBO), so its existence at this spot on this list, let alone on this list at all, could be deemed provisional but, oh, well! The HBO Max miniseries about what happens after a plague wipes out 99 percent of the population really is about a plague, so—who could say why!—you might not be up for it right now. Still, the show is hardly ever flat-out depressing, and its melancholy mood is occasionally punctuated by real delight. (See: an early scene in which a would-be actor auditions, 20 years into the plague future, with the climactic speech from Independence Day.) Moreover, to further elaborate on my feelings about TV and fun: Fun is good, but sometimes really bleeping good is better.
8. The eight-hour documentary Get Back (Disney+), which follows the Beatles as they make the music for the album (and documentary) Let It Be, works in some of the same ways that, I think, the Marvel Cinematic Universe works for people who like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Couldn’t be me!) By this I mean you have to be all read in on the mythology. If you are, you’re watching a story, but also a story that’s part of a bigger story. Just by cultural osmosis, so many of us have some sense of what “happened” to the Beatles as they headed to their breakup, but now we get to check that against actual footage of them being themselves, with one another. It’s everything you think you know, but made particular, more specific, weirder—and the music’s not bad either.
9. Before I started doing so, my interest in watching Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) was nonexistent. I thought it would be an extended Portlandia bit about the Upper West Side, coasting along on the charm of its two leads, Steve Martin and Martin Short, which now that I write it down … why didn’t I want to watch that? It’s that I thought it would all barely hang together. But that’s not Only Murders at all. It does tease the Upper West Side, podcasts, and true crime, contain funny performances from both its leads (and Selena Gomez), but it is also an intricately plotted, well-paced, clever comedy whodunit that coasts not at all. A real sleeper pleasure for me.
10. And in conclusion, a (very) fun one: the adorable and banter-y romantic comedy Starstruck (HBO) about a hilarious, appealing, albeit nonfamous woman and the cute, funny movie star with whom she gets entangled.